The Fell: A Novel
- By Sarah Moss
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 192 pp.
- Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- March 15, 2022
This story’s quiet start belies its propulsive finish.
Sarah Moss’ The Fell is a pandemic novel, the first I’ve read, though doubtless there will be more. The limited action in this concise, compressed psychological drama occurs over the course of one day in a British village during extreme physical and social lockdown due to the coronavirus.
Moss tasks herself with creating drama out of the quotidian tedium and isolation faced by her characters: single mother Kate, her teenage son, Matt, and their widowed next-door neighbor, Alice. The opening pages illustrate their individual pandemic circumstances and states of mind. Boredom and loneliness are their common trials.
Kate’s café is shut down; she’s depressed and very short of money. She may have had contact with a virus carrier, so she is under the strictest of lockdown precautions: mandated not to leave home. Matt is angry, blowing off online school, zoning out by gaming. Alice, immunocompromised by chemotherapy, dependent on neighbors for grocery delivery, comforts herself with baking and eating cookies.
Each is preoccupied by individual distress, almost preferring, as Alice says, to “have dark conviction than the appalling uncertainty of hope, the risk of letting yourself believe there might be good times again.” The three are so emotionally and physically alone that there are only two scenes of actual in-person interaction in the novel, and only one direct conversation, a few telephone calls, and one family Zoom.
Rather than through dialogue and scenes, then, character is revealed and the story developed as the protagonists engage in extended internal monologues: recollecting conversations, reflecting on the present moment, remembering recent days, and briefly flashing back to significant pre-pandemic personal events such as a death, a divorce.
Working within these demanding, self-imposed restrictions, the author makes good use of close-third-person point of view, especially in her meticulous attention to physical and sensory perception. Here, for example, is Kate observing herself:
“She…notices mud on the jeans she’s been wearing — how many days? She has been doing laundry, some laundry, it’s not as if she and Matt aren’t changing their pants, though she gave up on bras early on…That’s something else she could get rid of, though even someone in principle willing to consider a second-hand bra wouldn’t consider hers, greying with elastic worms coming out of the straps.”
Albeit skillfully, Moss undertakes a substantial authorial risk by recreating isolation and boredom in such detail, particularly since current-day readers are personally acquainted with these general circumstances. Perhaps, to future readers, The Fell will seem dystopian. Right now, it’s an all-too-recognizable slice of life — and not an exciting life.
For, although fraught with potentially lethal external threat, most daily existence during lockdown is tedious for those fortunate enough not to work on the frontline or be desperately ill. So, initially, the story of the characters’ limited world approaches the limit of the reader’s patience. Fortunately, Moss soon introduces an acute crisis and thus transforms the almost dull into a psychological thriller.
Desperate to clear her mind and stave off depression, Kate impulsively dons her hiking boots for a quick, forbidden walk at dusk. She heads off into the countryside. There is no risk. She won’t encounter anyone and will be back before Matt stops gaming long enough even to notice she’s gone.
But then she twists her ankle, falls, and cannot get up. Kate is stranded on the fell — a dark, chill landscape reminiscent of Emily Brontë’s brooding moor. Matt and Alice soon discover she’s gone, and Alice alerts the rescue squad. The crisis and potential catastrophe unfold from the point of view of Kate, Matt, and Alice, as well as a member of the search party. Stakes ramp up, and the novel takes off.
Up to this point, the pervasive threats have been passive: boredom and possible infection from the lurking virus “out there.” Now, danger and fear are rendered active and specific. Kate may not survive to return to her humdrum routine. She, Matt, and Alice are all forced out of their prior preoccupation and stupor; their relationships with each other are energized and changed.
The novel and the reading experience are intensified as well by the resulting suspense and tension. Unexpectedly, and recounted with Moss’ restrained, realistic style, The Fell becomes a page-turner descended from the classic literature of the dire straits and extreme solitude of shipwreck, a cousin to Emma Donoghue’s Room, where protagonists are locked in rather than locked down.
Finally, the intentionally understated victory of this topical, timely novel is found in its conclusion. Sarah Moss’ vulnerable characters almost succumb to emotional numbness and then rediscover what there is to live for.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was published last May. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.